The View from the World

A Very Indifferent Jesuit 1954

It pleases Jesuits to call themselves “Ours”. Ours were not to own property, were to regard the Superior as the instrument of the will of God and were to have as little as possible to do with Externs, all those who were not One of Ours. I am an Extern of long-standing now, but for nine years I was One of Ours and dwelled in a remote country where Jesuits trained and planned for their assault on the World.

I presently live in the World, an enormously attractive place from which there is no return. There are still some of Ours about, not nearly so many as there used to be, and presumably the assault goes on as planned, though with what success I do not know. We chat about other things, I and Ours, we we chance to meet, without acrimony and often in that winning worldly style that the Jesuits cultivate to charm the hell out of Externs and win their Immortal souls. They are ambivalent but satisfying conversations, those random moments here and there, because I was schooled in the same discourse, and the rich ambiguity of encounter between the Worldly Jesuit and the Jesuit Worldling gives pleasure to both.

When I first offered myself to the Jesuits I was assured that yes, of course I could join their illustrious Company. First, however, there would be a modest orientation: it went under the innocent name of the Novitiate. The Novitiate was modest only by paleontological standards: that orientation went on during every waking minute of every day for two long years. Its object was quite simply to strip off my worldly body-work right down to the chassis, replace the motor, and then reconstruct a new Jesuit model on the original specifications drawn up by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Basque fundador of that enterprise.

It must have worked for at least some of my contemporaries; they are still Jesuits. It obviously didn’t work on me. I think they may have missed the motor, or so I suspect since I could still hear the same old piston-rattling gas-guzzler knocking away under my shiny new black hood. Which is not to say I didn’t try. For nine years I gave the Jesuits what I could, which was probably not a great deal, and they gave me as much as I was willing to take, which was not nearly enough. On balance the debt is mine, not theirs. They taught me languages, logical and rhetorical analysis, a degree of self-discipline and, in the end, my own spiritual limits, which turned out to be astonishingly narrow. I discovered I could adjust to almost anything and refrain from almost anything, if the motive was strong enough and the temperature low enough. With the cool Jesuits I adjusted and refrained for nine years; thrown into the World, my record is not nearly so good.

Ours love to be Ours. Their rules refer to the Jesuits as “this least Society,” an expression almost paralyzed with irony. If there is a “least Society” in the bosom of the Catholic Church, it is assuredly not, on the Jesuits’ own reckoning, the Society of Jesus. It must be some other confraternity pursuing its own imperfect vision of the religious life. Some religious orders were fitfully admired by Ours in the manner of a connoisseur smiling upon a picturesque ruin, once glorious things like the Benedictines or Dominicans that had fallen into decay. The more remote the ruin, the greater the pretended respect: the Carthusians, whom no one had ever encountered, were thought to be obscurely worthwhile, but the Franciscans, whatever their imagined service to the Church in the past, were by now innocuous poseurs. Others were mere cartoons: the dimly single-minded like the Passionists, shamelessly self-promoting entrepreneurs like the Maryknollers; the unnumbered hordes of helot bruits posing as Brothers, Christian, Irish Christian, Marist or whatever; and your parish priest, who at least owned up to his inferior status and so won from Ours the same grudging respect that the physician grants to the dentist but withholds from the insolent chiropractor.

Whoever they were, they were not to be compared to Ours. Jesuits were the Major Leagues, and the unanimously shared opinion was that everyone recognized it, even the Pope and, more importantly, even the World. Even now, long after turning in my pinstriped uniform with Ours emblazoned across the chest, the most modest and casual allusion to a Jesuit past still brings the shamelessly satisfying acknowledgment that this guy had once carried a bat to the plate in the Bigs.

I too loved being a Jesuit, being reckoned “one of Ours,” just as I would have loved being a Marine, I suspect, or a New York Yankee or a Supreme Court justice, and precisely, and not coincidentally, the way I loved being a student at Regis High School. And they didn’t fool me with their two years of Novitiate and the barrage of self-abnegating thorns they pumped like automatic weapon fire into the Novices’ willing flesh. No more than five minutes after the completion of the Novitiate the familiar Jesuit carrots began coming out of the bag. It was the anticipation of the taste of those carrots, I think, and not the fear of the stick that sustained me through those first two years.

As the Novitiate wore off, my twenty year old’s tongues and head, if not my heart, had slowly returned to life. The Society of Jesus was, as I correctly guessed, a kind of Regis writ large. People stayed or left the Jesuits of their own accord, but of those who stayed, no one was ever dismissed into lesser orders of being like the Franciscans or Dominicans; the sluggish of wit were compassionately allowed to sink down to the natural level of their specific gravity within the Society and to rest there on the graceful premise that God’s work takes many forms, even hearing the confessions of nuns and doing marriage counseling. Maybe, but I didn’t join the Church’s Marines to serve out my time as a lance corporal or doing KP. The Jesuits opened their competitive Pandora’s box to me in high school and I was disinclined to allow them to slam it closed on my fingers at this point. Just start the music and let’s get on with the dancing, I silently begged.

And I did. I danced for years with poets, with essayists, historians or philosophers in the language of their choice: with Catullus and the somewhat heavier-footed Thomas in Latin; with Demosthenes and Aristotle in Greek; with Cicero, that show-off, in Latin or Greek, whatever was his mood; with Macaulay, Milton and Tennyson in the vernacular and Racine in fancy French Alexandrines. They led and I kept up, with ever increasing agility and even, after a while, with a degree of grace. Others wearied of the parsing, the composing and decomposing; I did not. I was ready for this part of the Jesuit life. I always had been, from those first Saturday mornings when Sister Gabriel pressed a bit and I began to respond. I had the skills, and the ease and confidence followed in the Jesuit years. I ate up the two years reading the Classics at St. Andrew’s. I loved the three years of philosophy at St. Louis. I couldn’t wait to begin teaching Greek and Latin and English in high school, even though it was in Buffalo.

The Jesuits were fine. Not so bright as I and others might have expected, or as the Jesuits sometimes appear, or as they always think. No wonder perhaps. The nine of us who stood on the Jesuits’ doorstep that late July afternoon in 1945 were not untypical recruits, every last one of us from a Jesuit high school and a more or less lower middle-class Catholic family, most of them Irish-Catholic. There were no geniuses among us, just some fairly bright young men and a few just barely bright enough. When I emerged nine years later I was much the same, a fairly bright young adult, with some new skills but with most of my middle-class values, spiritual and intellectual, relentlessly intact.

And so I danced my little dance, not in the hesitant, still alien style I had just begun to learn at Regis, but now fully extended. It was a little difficult getting some open space in the Novitiate, those first two years of manual labor and meditative silence; the daily order imposed on the Novices was as dense as the text of Leviticus, and who could not dance to that music? Immured in a cell, I would surely have perished; let loose in the Talmud, I began to rhumba.

Later I stood in college classrooms and looked benignly on Yeshiva boys translated by whim or design into my secular university. They all wanted a little scuffle with me, those serious skull-capped youths, because I was, well maybe, a Christian and because I sometimes said unacceptable things about the date of the Torah. I don’t really care about the date of the Torah, but I did care about them because I was once one of them, and perhaps still am. You shake the Jesuit life with only somewhat less difficulty than you can shake a cycle in the Talmud. They wanted to fight with me and I want to waltz with them; by the end of the semester we were usually doing both.

Some of the habits and tastes I acquired in the Jesuits were permanent, like a mania for distinctions—datur tertium, frater, datur tertium!— and a disposition toward mid-afternoon naps; others were transient, like my flirtation with prayer and my easy mastery of life in an all-male society. I enjoyed the company of my fellow-warriors against the World, the Flesh and the Devil. The relationship was not very close, though the life was, since there was a strenuous taboo against any discussion of the personal. We never revealed ourselves to one another, and if there was pleasure in our consorting, it was the pleasure of shared experience, shared language, shared public joys and pains, in sheer survival in our slow progress through the long Jesuit training.

Nine years in the company only of men. In its intensity it was almost a lifetime of precious experience, and yet I now know as little about them as when I began the experiment. I had no curiosity about my fellow Jesuits either as individuals or as a group. Whatever the pleasure I took from our association, its ease and smoothness, they did not challenge or engage me. We played together, but only at sports. There was no intensity in it, no shared ambitions or hopes or sorrows, no desire to love or to wound. However difficult it is for me to love a woman, how many false starts and bad finishes there have been to that, I still do not know how even to begin to love a man.

The Jesuits encouraged charity, not love, and it may have been a better balm at such close quarters. Charity reduced the friction in our tightly geared machine; love might have blown it to God’s own heaven. But there was no great warmth in that charity, and at its imperfect edges it might even have passed for indifference. Indifference was in fact a highly regarded virtue, not merely of the Jesuits but of the religious life. It was frequently glossed as detachment, detachment from place, from things, from the cravings of self. When applied to persons, charity was supposed to intervene at some point before the indifferent psyche blacked out just this side of absolute zero. If you were lucky.

Whatever effort there was on my part, it was all wasted. Saint Ignatius, that genius of the spiritual life, had made a fatal miscalculation. He assumed a worldly engagement in his recruits, a Spanish lust as fiery as his own for the goods and pleasures and rewards of This Life, and he contrived an elaborate system to purge and cool that ardor. The Novices’ desks, sinks, beds, even companions and assignments were regularly and randomly shuffled to forestall a future love affair with the World’s greater temptations. Mutual and self-admonition were administered in calculated doses every hour of the day and night. Father Ignatius wanted to make spiritual Stoics; he just didn’t know what to do with an eighteen year old who presented himself at the front door of the Novitiate in the grip of an already perfect apatheia.

The Ignatian purge went right through me, who early on had decided I could play any hand dealt to me. I coolly finessed the shuffled sinks and beds and other lower cards, and when at length the crafty Iñigo was constrained to throw down his last ace, the temptation of going all in and actually becoming a Jesuit priest, I trumped it with indifferent ease, picked up my chips and left the game. I was far more detached than even Ignatius of Loyola could have contemplated or imagined.

It was certainly not from any lack of self-esteem that I had mastered detachment to such a heroic degree. Rather, my careful cultivation of that virtue of the spiritual life permitted my self-esteem to grow to almost pathological, almost Jesuitical grandeur. Shielded from all disappointment, all possibility of any but spiritual failure, and endlessly stroked by the hands of relatives, teachers and friends who thought they were picking the lock to my psyche but were simply giving it a massage, my ego scintillated in the darkness of the cloister. In the Jesuits’ spiritual laboratory dedicated to the eradication of that pernicious parasite, my already inflated Self was inspected on an almost hourly schedule. The Ego was usually given a sound thrashing in those prescribed bouts of self-analysis, but mine certainly derived some nourishment as well from all the attention, as did our collective psyches from the mere fact that we were all Jesuits.

The Jesuits were shut down once, the entire Order suppressed by the Pope because its power was becoming a little too much to handle for the rulers of Europe. The Suppression, which in Jesuit historiography was inevitably capitalized, like the Holocaust or the Black Death, was a thoroughly shameful act, all the latter-day Jesuits agreed; but if, on some highly unlikely, almost ludicrous supposition that there was some exceedingly trivial moral flaw that might conceivably have brought about such an unanticipated turn in Divine Providence, then one might possibly conjecture—the language became downright opaque at this sticky and embarrassing point—-that it was a lack of humility in that Least Society.

Indeed. The Jesuits found humility as improbable as a hedge fund manager might a vow of poverty. The Society of Jesus came into existence as an elite, and its members inculcated elitism in their students and their own recruits. They made me and my fellow Novices scrub latrines for two years –“Sure,” I said in my indifferent way, “Why not?”– but once that unpleasant exercise was completed, I at last settled down to the attractive task of preparing to be the Brightest and the Best, or what passed for such in that Company.

It was a superb life, a full scholarship whose only conditions were that you said your prayers and practiced poverty, chastity and obedience. I filled all the conditions, but only, I later suspected, because they were conditions, the price for being a Jesuit instead of the heart of the Jesuit life. It was not a dissimulation –that would have been dreadfully difficult under the circumstances– but a kind of carelessness which allowed me to slip, without a great deal of deliberation, from the high ground of the spirit to the meaner terrain of the letter.

And I loved the life too much to admit to myself that I was not living all of it. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked that nasty old spoilsport of a Church Father Tertullian. Well, to tell the truth, exactly nothing, except that I preferred to live in Greece than in the Holy Land, and the Jesuits’ brave attempt at dual citizenship was beyond my spiritual powers.
In the end I renounced Jerusalem; it was a place where I had no home nor ever would. And I renounced my Jesuit scholarship as well, as I must, just as it was beginning to swell with attractive vistas abroad at Oxford or Paris or Rome. The gesture was neither noble nor defiant. It had rather the prosaic quality of a student raising his hand to leave the room and never returning. No goodbyes. No regrets. No tears. Just in and out, with a nine year lifetime in between.

I asked and they granted me the Demissory Letters, a release from my canonical vows. The documents were validated by the American Assistant, the Rev. John R. Sanderson, S.J., on July 13, 1954, and a copy certified by the New York Provincial at Kohlmann Hall, Fordham University, Bronx, New York, was sent to the petitioner, me.

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